By Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
Longtime defense allies the Philippines and the United States launched joint naval drills in the South China Sea on Monday, in an apparent show of force against China amid rising tensions in the contested waterway.
The Samasama exercise will run for 12 days and involve 600 U.S. Navy personnel and about the same number of Filipino seamen, officials said. For the second year in a row, naval forces from Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, and Australia will also participate.
The annual war games will take place in South China Sea waters in and around southern Luzon, the main and most populated island in the Philippines.
The rights of all nations to ensure sovereignty must be “upheld, protected and not taken for granted,” Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, said during a ceremony at the Philippine Navy’s headquarters here to launch the drills.
“We will deter those who will weaken the fabric of peace,” he said. “[T]here’s no better way to ensure sovereignty and security than to sail and operate together.”
The exercise comes amid heightened tensions between the Philippines and China over the waterway. On Sept. 22, Manila accused the China Coast Guard of deploying a 328-yard-long “floating barrier” to obstruct the entrance to the disputed Scarborough Shoal. The next day, the Philippine Coast Guard removed the barrier in a “special operation.”
While Thomas fell short of mentioning China by name, Filipino Navy chief Vice Admiral Toribio Adaci Jr. referred explicitly to a judgment delivered by an international arbitration court in 2016 that favored the Philippines’ territorial claims over China’s in the South China Sea.
“The ruling upheld the sovereign rights of the Filipinos in the West Philippine Sea,” he said, calling the contentious portion of the sea by its Filipino name. “This is what we promote – a rules-based international order.”
The exercises are part of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty signed between the U.S. and the Philippines. It calls on both countries to aid each other in times of aggression by an external power.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, Canada’s Ambassador to the Philippines, David Hartman, told reporters that his government would give Manila free access to state-of-the-art satellites, allowing the Philippines to conduct real-time surveillance within the sea territory that it considers its exclusive economic zone.
The satellites can detect and track even “dark vessels” or ships that switched off their location transmitters, he said.
“We’ve seen a rise in behavior in the West Philippine Sea and the South China Sea that we have determined to be worrisome,” Hartman said. “I think it’s very clear how we stand. It’s unequivocal.”